Sergeant

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Sergeant is a word with an interesting history - and a spelling problem: it is one of the 117 mis-spellings listed as 'Common difficulties' in the section on 'Spelling' within 'Writing' in UEfAP. The word is always formally pronounced 'SAHR-jent', IPA: /ˈsɑːrənt/, in RP, although the less formal 'Sarn't' /sɑːrnt/ is common in military circles, while subordinates may refer to him as 'Sarge' (SAHj', /sɑːr dʒ/). (Don't confuse Sarge, perhaps by a typing mistake, with Serge or surge.)

  • The commonest spelling by far is sergeant, with '-rg-' between the vowels '-e-' and '-ea-'. This applies above all to the military rank and certain related usages. A sergeant in an army is a non-commissioned officer, above a corporal, and below Company Sergeant-Major and Regimental Sergeant-Major. In the infantry, a sergeant is normally the disciplinary heart of a platoon, of some 30 troops under an officer. For more on the military rank, see Non-commissioned officer
    • A sergeant-at-arms, or sergeant of arms, was an officer attendant on an aristocrat, and specifically one of 24 close personal attendants on the King, acting as a bodyguard, with powers of arrest. In modern times, the Serjeant-at-arms of the House of Commons is the officer charged with maintaining order on the floor of the House, the equivalent of Black Rod in the House of Lords. Similar offices exist in many other legislatures, some spelled Sergeant-at-arms, although the spelling with '-j-' is common in members of the British Commonwealth.
    • In the UK Police Force, all of whose members are Police Officers, the sergeant is the first promoted rank after Constable, and the first step in the chain of command which reaches up through Inspector, Chief Inspector, Superintendent, Chief Superintendent and so on, in varying ways, to Chief Constable
  • But there is also a spelling serjeant, where the '-g-' is replaced by the homophonous '-j-'. This spelling is now correct only for the titles of certain lawyers and junior functionaries.
    • Serjeants-at-law were the senior members of the English bar (barristers), and the only ones who might be appointed to be judges in the criminal courts, from the Middle Ages until the title was abolished in 1877. (They had been overtaken in the seventeenth century as senior members by the Queen's (or King's) Counsel.) This is the exclusive fraternity to which Dickens's character Mr Serjeant Buzfuz, counsel to Mrs Bardell in her action against Mr Pickwick for breach of promise in The Pickwick Papers, belongs, like his opponent, Mr Pickwick's counsel Mr Serjeant Snubbin; Trollope also has Serjeants Birdbott, who defends Phineas Finn, and Bluestone in his novels.
      • The title is still used, as the Common Serjeant (of London; in full The Serjeant-at-Law in the Common Hall), for the second most senior permanent judge, after the Recorder of London, at the Central Criminal Court. Various junior officers of corporations, guilds, etc, without necessarily any legal function, are also known as serjeants.
      • The development of meaning of sergeant/serjeant (the spellings were not distinguished until the nineteenth century) is curious. The root is the Latin serviens, the present participle of servire 'to serve', used as a noun to mean servant. (The shift from the original '-v-' to the modern '-g-' (or '-j-') happened in Old French.)
        • In Middle English, sergeants (then sometimes written 'seriaunts') were servants, attendants; and in military terms, common soldiers.
        • But by 1290 at least, a sergeant was also a landholder under the feudal system, holding by duty of serving in the army. It is unclear precisely what the role was, though it may have been similar to that of a squire. The land held was a serjeanty.
        • By the fourteenth century, a sergeant was an officer of the law-courts, or similar authorities, who carried out arrest, and delivered summonses to hearings. Hamlet refers to this office when, sensing the approach of death, he says to Horatio
... as this fell sergeant Death
Is strict in his arrest
(Shakespeare (1604) Hamlet V. ii. 288)
        • Until the twentieth century, Sergeants at (or of) the Mace were junior officers of great households or corporations who actually carried out the arrest, serving of warrants, and so on, on behalf of the institutions which they served. The maces that they carried were in effect their badges of office.

So 'sergeant' has gone from 'servant' or 'common soldier' through to one of the great ceremonial offices.

You might also want to see AWE's pages on Derby, clerk and the proper noun Hervey for the variation between British and American forms of English of the realisation of the spelling '-er-' as 'AHr.